This is Jimmy Butler’s year — and his team. He’s been a growing force since joining the Chicago Bulls in 2011, but his true ascension came this past offseason, when Derrick Rose, the former MVP and frequently injured face of the franchise, was traded to the New York Knicks (along with another pillar of the team, Joakim Noah). Butler was the natural new leading man.
Even with the addition of two superstars and forceful personalities in their own right — Chicago native Dwyane Wade from the Miami Heat and Rajon Rondo from the Sacramento Kings — Butler reigns. Both have pledged to be as ferocious and vocal as ever, but also to defer to No. 21.
The reasons are many: In the past five years, Butler’s game has gone from serviceable to spectacular. He’s a two-time NBA All-Star and a three-time NBA All-Defensive Team honoree. In 2015, the 6-foot-7, 220-pound shooting guard/small forward was named the NBA Most Improved Player (the first Bull to ever win that award) and re-signed with the Bulls to a five-year, $95 million contract.
But while Butler’s head is irrefutably in the game — as he tries to find synergy among a group of headstrong alpha players — his heart is with another team.
In 2012, he became involved with After School Matters, a local nonprofit that provides after-school and summer programs to more than 15,000 Chicago high school students every year. The Chicago Bulls organization gets the team involved with ASM through a variety of events including player visits, and, for the last two years, an annual T-shirt design contest in partnership with UNIQLO. ASM also receives tickets and in-kind and financial support from the team.
But Butler’s involvement is much more personal. For him, it’s all about getting to know the kids one-on-one.
“I swear to you, I relate in every single way because I really listen,” he says of working with the students, mostly ages 14 to 18. “You can hear it in their voices how hurt or how happy they might be on any given day. I’m locked in. I listen to every word and you can hear the emotion.”
The 27-year-old doesn’t find it hard to relate, having faced a difficult upbringing in the small town of Tomball, Texas (he’s admitted to having had a strained relationship with his parents). When he accepted an athletic scholarship to Marquette University in 2008, his coach Buzz Williams didn’t go easy on him.
“That guy was so tough on me, but he never told me that I couldn’t do anything,” he says. “He just saw the possibility of who I could become and he didn’t care about the floor. I swear the guy [still] texts me every other day and he’s like, ‘I don’t care if you ever play basketball again, you’re an amazing human being and I’ll always be here for you.’ That’s how I want these kids to look at me.”
The first thing I say is, ‘There’s no basketball. There [are] no superstars in this room right now. We’re all human beings. We all take showers and we all tie our shoes the same way.’
This summer, he hosted a basketball tournament for about 30 ASM kids, but his mentorship isn’t just about the game: from mini golf to football, Butler is up for anything. “I don’t think they’re intimidated at all because I come in and I break the ice,” he says. “The first thing I say is, ‘There’s no basketball. There [are] no superstars in this room right now. We’re all human beings. We all take showers and we all tie our shoes the same way.’ ”
At press time, he was planning to bring ASM teens Tajuan Gordon, 17, and Terrance Love, 15 — who played in his tourney this summer — to the team’s annual charity gala Oct. 21. He even took them to Bonobos — he’s the national face of the brand — to pick out suits for the occasion. “They get to live my life for once,” he says. “They get to walk that red carpet in a nice suit and be [themselves].”
And it’s not just Butler — the whole team gets involved. “It takes a lot of stress out of this game … We get to bond while taking care of these kids — [from] the young guys on our team all the way up to the vets, and Chicago needs that from us,” Butler says. “You see our faces splashed on billboards, on TV, you see us running up and down the basketball court, but [these kids] no longer say, ‘That’s Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls.’ They’ll say, ‘That’s my guy.’ ”
Jimmy Butler is a country boy at heart: The Tomball, Texas, native turned out for our cover shoot in an RD hat (the initials of country singer and good friend Russell Dickerson) and his go-to getup of ripped jeans and a T-shirt. He posed with teens from After School Matters, a nonprofit honored by the Chicago Bulls Charities at its annual gala this month.
Photographer: Maria Ponce
Main photo: Jimmy Butler with Tajuan Gordon (left), 17, and Terrance Love, 15, whom he mentors through After School Matters.